Solo, Central Java. Even as Indonesia stepped up security throughout the archipelago in the decade since the Bali blasts, a new wave of militants is regrouping in the teeming city of Solo and biding its time.
Radicals in Solo estimate that as many as 200 of them are prepared to take on suicide missions and up to 3,000 others consider themselves part of an army to fight in the name of religion. Their estimates underscore the continuing threat of terrorist attacks.
“There are about 200 pengantins [a term suicide bombers associate themselves] and about 3,000 ready… to fight… all based in and around Solo, doing small-time business while waiting to act,” said Rudy (not his real name), 33, an odd-job worker who has fought in sectarian conflicts in Ambon and Poso, Central Sulawesi.
Analysts say there is no way of telling if this estimate is accurate.
Solo gained notoriety after most of the Bali bombers were linked to the city. Since then, young radicals and aspiring terrorists have flocked to the city considered the birthplace of the Islamic resurgence in Indonesia.
It is here, on the outskirts of Solo, that jailed cleric Abu Bakar Bashir founded the Islamic boarding school Pondok Ngruki, described by the chief of the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) Ansyaad Mbai as the “center of gravity” for aspiring militants.
While the Jemaah Islamyiah (JI) has been crippled, Bashir’s ideology lives on through other groups such as Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid. Last month, at least three former students of Pondok Ngruki were shot or caught for being terrorist suspects.
The school, which is still operating, has said it does not teach radical literature. “Though cells are scattered now, Solo is where most brothers come to gather and exchange views,” said Rudy. “They consider it a spiritual center, given its long history of being home to groups that want to establish an Islamic state, and it is where their emirs had spread their teachings.”
The emirs he was referring to are Bashir and another founder of Pondok Ngruki, Abdullah Sungkar. Their students included executed Bali bombers Amrozi and Mukhlas. Sungkar died in 1999, while Bashir is serving a 15-year jail term for funding a paramilitary camp in Aceh.
The continued draw of Solo for aspiring militants can be traced back to its violent past.
Before Indonesia’s independence, Islamic leaders set up militant groups to fight colonizers and establish an Islamic state.
Researcher Irfan Abubakar of the Center for Religious and Cultural Studies said two out of every 10 mosques in Solo had close affiliations with extremist groups.
“Given the history of the city, there is a tendency for some in the society there to view the presence of radical ideology as acceptable.”
Now, Rudy says, there is a renewal of radical thought centered in Solo. These young aspiring militants are usually children or close relatives of the earlier militants picked to be trained in Afghanistan for holy war.
Members of these radical groups overlap, creating a complicated network hard to track.
Rudy and Sani (not his real name), a former member of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front, estimate there are more than 10 militant groups in Solo.
Analysts say Solo has largely been used as a hiding place, not as a battle front. “These radicals will always try to blow up figures, but no one really knows how many groups and warriors are out there as the affiliations are very fluid,” said Noor Huda Ismail, a former Pondok Ngruki student and security analyst who founded the Indonesia-based Institute for International Peace Building.
Last year’s church bombing and last month’s arrest of nine suspects in Solo after a shoot-out that killed two 19-year-olds suggest the young terrorists are impatient for recognition.
“These young terrors are amateurs… too emotional and want to show off,” said Sani, who writes for a radical website. “Older players wait for a worthy cause to launch holy war so that the impact is significant.”